60 years after Brown v. Board, NWI district revels in its diversity
By Carole Carlson firstname.lastname@example.org June 6, 2014 8:48PM
Merrillville High School seniors, from left, Jason Jones, Christian Garza, Jose Medina, Alexis Alexander and Janelle Tayor listen to instructions from their teacher in an English class Thursday. | Carole Carlson~Sun-Tmies Media
By the numbers
Merrillville Community Schools ethnicity
Whites 33% 16%
Black 44% 58%
Hispanic 14% 19%
Updated: July 9, 2014 6:03AM
Sixty years after the landmark Supreme Court decision that ended school segregation, one Northwest Indiana school district is embracing and flourishing in its diversity.
“We have taken the vision from the Brown decision and made it into a reality,” Merrillville Community Schools Superintendent Mark Sperling said.
The landmark court decision meant school districts could no longer maintain separate buildings, dividing white and black children. The court ruling accelerated the civil rights movement, eventually shattering segregation policies across the country.
In Northwest Indiana, segregation took root by ZIP code, creating an invisible border that kept blacks in the northern Lake County urban core. In the past two decades, blacks began moving into suburban districts like Merrillville as their parents became disenchanted with academic progress in their schools.
In about 15 years, the Merrillville Community Schools transitioned from a white majority student body to one where black students make up 58 percent of the enrollment. Whites account for 16 percent and Hispanics 19 percent.
The rapid change hasn’t slowed the district’s academic success. Merrillville High received an “A” grade from the state last year and 94 percent of its seniors graduated.
Superintendent Mark Sperling credits former school chief Tony Lux, who retired last year, for recognizing the value in diversity and setting the bar high for all students.
“Regardless of population, our expectations haven’t changed,” Sperling said.
Last year, the Coalition of Schools Educating Boys of Color recognized Salk Elementary and Merrillville High for the academic success of the schools. They were among just five in the country winning honors from the organization.
In the past 15 years, hundreds of black students left the struggling Gary Community School Corp., where the student body is predominantly black, and migrated to Merrillville.
During the 1960s and 1970s, white flight propelled Gary’s transition from a white district to a predominantly black one. It also led to decreased investment in the community, fueled by job losses in area steel mills.
“It’s interesting to talk about the significance of a decision that says that separate is inherently not equal,” Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson said. “We saw it in 1954, and we see it today.”
A collapsing tax base, poverty and sinking test scores led Indiana school chief Glenda Ritz to label Gary as the state’s lone high-risk district.
The lack of resources in Gary has led to what Freeman-Wilson called “de facto segregation.” She said there’s a marked difference in real estate values and incomes between Gary and more affluent Lake County districts. “You really need to come with a way to equalize resources that are available.”
Danny Lackey, director of diversity for the Merrillville schools, said some ground has been lost since the Brown decision because of racial isolation in many of the country’s urban school districts, like Gary.
“We truly embrace and see diversity as an asset and not something they just have to tolerate,” said Lackey, recently elevated to the district’s central office for his new role as diversity director, a position not many districts have.
Merrillville reached a crossroad in the late 1990s when a fight broke out after a basketball game between white and black MHS students.
Lux moved swiftly to defuse what could have evolved into a volatile situation. Lackey said Lux brought the parents of both students together for a dialogue about what their dreams were for their children. “Lo and behold, they both wanted the same things,” said Lackey, a Hammond native who came to MHS in 1998 as a guidance counselor.
Lackey began a new group called STAND — Socially Together and Naturally Diverse — to help kids break down racial barriers. The group performs community service and skits about diversity for elementary students.
“The message is, don’t judge by outward appearance but by character,” said Lackey who also conducts cultural competency training for Merrillville’s mostly white teaching staff.
“Merrillville does a good job of creating a culture that’s comfortable for kids,” said senior Cassie Govert, 18, who’s been in Merrillville her entire school career. “Here, we see so many different cultures and people during the day, we don’t really notice.”
Meanwhile, Merrillville officials are clinging to their diverse student body, hoping white flight has stabilized.
“At the end of the day, the community will decide what it looks like,” Sperling said. “I would love to see this community hang on to its diversity and gain from it.”